In an era when public untruths wind up as one- or two-line bulletin on our smart phones, how do we break the cycle of lying and public forgetting?
When it comes to ethics in the presidential campaign, the 1960s folk-rock band Buffalo Springfield had a fitting line: "There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear."
"It" in this case appears to be misrepresentations fully tolerated by each side, in part because they think most voters just don't really care or are too dumb to notice. So much for actual facts revealed in Twitter-like real time by an increasingly watchful political media. Consider:
Politico detailed how top officials (unnamed) in both the Obama and Romney organizations agree on much about the campaign. They both speak about the need to go negative, no matter how the press derides their ads' tones and half-truths. They "privately scoff at the media's obsession with fact checking, arguing that reporters and voters can't pay attention long enough to penalize a candidate for being full of it."
Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, told a breakfast group at the Republican National Convention that "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," whom he feels bring their own belief systems to their handiwork.
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist who has interviewed Paul Ryan often, was bewildered by parts of his convention speech. "I've never heard him utter sentiments remotely like that," he said in a published dialogue with colleague Gail Collins regarding Ryan's criticism of the Simpson-Bowles plan. "If you've got a guy famous for truth-telling, why feed him a bunch of semi-deceptions," he said, alluding to what he assumed was campaign insistence on certain talking points parroted by Ryan.
"Both sides are implicated," said Colin Greer, a left-leaning Scottish-born educator who runs the New World Foundation, a social justice organization in New York. "They don't tell the truth about each other. Can we expect our children to trust and believe us as they grow up?"
There are not only some obvious distinctions between political hyperbole and lies. There's also the reality that some deceptions, both in our personal lives and in areas like military intelligence, can certainly be justified. But one can also deceive without lying, such as in telling a hospital patient you know is dying that they look better today.